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"Utter disregard" differs from Idaho's "heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance, Idaho Code § 19-2515(g)(5) (1987), because the "utter disregard" construction focuses on the defendant's state of mind. The "utter disregard" factor refers not to the outrageousness of the acts constituting the murder, but to the defendant's lack of conscientious scruples against killing another human being. In light of the consistent narrowing definition given the "utter disregard" circumstance by the Idaho Supreme Court, the circumstance, on its face, meets constitutional standards.
After respondent Creech pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for the brutal slaying of a fellow Idaho prison inmate, the state trial judge sentenced him to death, based in part on the statutory aggravating circumstance that "by the murder, or circumstances surrounding its commission, the defendant exhibited utter disregard for human life." In affirming, the Idaho Supreme Court, among other things, rejected Creech's argument that this aggravating circumstance is unconstitutionally vague and reaffirmed the limiting construction it had placed on the statutory language in State v. Osborn, 102 Idaho 405, 418-419, 631 P.2d 187, 200-201, whereby, inter alia, "'the phrase "utter disregard"… is meant to be reflective of … the cold-blooded, pitiless slayer.'" Although the Federal District Court denied habeas corpus relief, the Court of Appeals found the "utter disregard" circumstance facially invalid, holding, among other things, that the circumstance is unconstitutionally vague and that the Osborn narrowing construction is inadequate to cure the defect under this Court's precedents.
Did the "utter disregard" circumstance, as interpreted by the Idaho Supreme Court, adequately channel sentencing discretion as required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?
The court held that the "utter disregard" aggravating circumstance, as construed by the Idaho Supreme Court, was valid on its face under the Federal Constitution's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because that construction was not without content but referred, in the ordinary usage of the phrase "cold-blooded, pitiless slayer," to a killer who kills without feeling or sympathy. The court also found that a claim that the Idaho courts had not applied the "utter disregard" circumstance consistently and had found first-degree murderers to be "cold-blooded" and "pitiless" in a wide range of circumstances was irrelevant, particularly in the case at hand, which was the first in which the Idaho Supreme Court had applied its construction of the "utter disregard" circumstance. Finally, the United States Supreme Court, having granted certiorari on only the issue of the facial validity of the "utter disregard" circumstance, need not consider arguments as to whether that circumstance had been properly applied to the case at hand, where the accused was entitled to resentencing on the basis of the second error identified by the Court of Appeals.